The Luxury of Withdrawal

I have never been shy about my opinions, or about advocating why they are the right ones.  I am an attorney, after all.  I don’t particularly enjoy conflict or fighting for the sake of the fight.  I am also not afraid to seek out thoughtful conversation and disagreement about issues or people of great importance to me, even on social media.  That has not been the case lately. I’m in the midst of a semi-withdrawal.

One of the things I care most about, and one of the biggest reasons I went to law school, is protecting the civil rights of people who are discriminated against because of their race, color, or national origin.  I don’t really remember when or why this first became so important to me, but it happened early on in my life.  It started well before middle school and before I read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee novel that has inspired so many civil rights lawyers.  It was before I watched Mississippi Burning, the 1989 movie starring Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe, dramatizing the investigation of the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers in the deep South.  I definitely recall bringing up the Civil War with my grandpa while riding in his blue Ford pick-up.  I remember telling him how awful slavery was and how wrong the South was to fight that war to defend it.  He died when I was nine so I had to be pretty young at the time.  I also recall being stunned when he responded that the South was really not fighting over slavery, but states’ rights.  It was the first time, but not the last, that I would hear a family member or friend attempt to justify racism in neutral terms.  (I also recall positive examples like my mother’s friendship and laughter with her softball teammate, a black woman whom my mom so clearly embraced.)

As part of my work, I regularly encounter allegations of racism, both individual and systemic.  Racism in the United States has been front and center as an issue since August 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Americans are talking more about it than at any time in my lifetime, and social media amplifies the reach of all who use it.  I certainly have written and shared thoughts about racism, white privilege, and Black Lives Matter on various social media platforms, including this blog.

I speak up because it is at the core of who I am.  Why would we not focus our time and energy and voices on the things that really matter?  

I speak up because as I have expanded my circle in the world beyond the tiny, mostly white town I grew up in, I met and became friends with more and more people of color who, in big and small ways, offered perspective on how their lives are personally affected by racism.  They are my friends, and many of them are hurting, and my gut inclination is to speak up for my friends.

I speak up because I feel I have the opportunity to serve as a bridge between people in my life who have limited experience with people of color and the people of color who are my friends now.  It is hard for me to understand how people I ordinarily experience to be kind and loving can be so defensive when it comes to admitting their privilege as white people, no matter their socioeconomic circumstance.  I speak up because I hope that if someone hears my friends’ perspectives, albeit secondhand, their hearts will be moved to greater compassion and understanding, even as I continue to seek it myself.

I speak up because it should not just fall on people of color to speak up.  As a white person, I have a moral obligation to criticize the systemic advantages I enjoy.  I want to be an ally, and while I am sure I fail at this regularly, I try to listen and learn from these failures.

One of these failures is that in the past month or so, I have withdrawn somewhat from the social media platforms in terms of commenting and sharing regarding race, privilege, and other political issues.  I have done so for several reasons.  First, there are people I love very much who do not like that I have raised these issues directly with them, and have cut ties with me as a result.  Second, there are times when I simply feel too overwhelmed by the backlash and resentment, the denial and the defensiveness.  It is scary and I want to run away and disconnect.  And so I have, at least via social media.  And this is the failure:  because I am white, I do not experience this backlash and resentment in any way near the way people of color do.  I operate in a mostly white society in which my face marks me as part of the dominant culture.  I can choose to be silent and retreat into my comfort zone and focus on my kids’ soccer games and birthday parties.  I have the luxury of withdrawal.

I think it is important to take care of one’s emotional self, and sometimes it is probably necessary to do that.  I write this to hold myself accountable, that I cannot and should not walk away from this fight because others may reject me.  I will continue to engage with people of all perspectives, and to be unafraid to learn from them.  I am seeking these conversations.  So yes, while I love posting pictures of food and my kids as much as anyone, I am not willing to edit out my thoughts and arguments on racism, or other significant issues in America to make you more comfortable as you scroll through your feed.  I will strive to offer my thoughts in a considerate and thoughtful way that invites you to respond in kind.

I realize words are not enough.  Actions are also needed.  Voting is critical.  Engagement, with a sincere desire to understand and listen, is necessary.  (My church is hosting one such event on October 2.  Read more and sign up here: Civil disobedience is important and forces us to wake up from our comfortable bubbles of everyday life.  (Yes, even at sporting events, concerts, and especially interstate highways due to their historical significance.)  If we truly want to move forward, together, as one nation, we have to give up the luxury of isolating ourselves from considering the experiences of people of color here in America. We have to engage, thoughtfully, deliberately, and (I would suggest) prayerfully with people who do not look like us or share our own backgrounds.  We need to listen and seek understanding and risk exposing our own vulnerability.  That is hard for me sometimes when I am in the midst of “making my case” for addressing America’s original sin.   It is also hard when I want to crawl into my shell and ignore it all.  But it is necessary. 



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